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A Chronicle of Ashes - Whedon's Row: Chapter V


'A Chronicle of Ashes' is a series of short stories exploring the extended Foxhole universe. These are unrelenting tales of human struggle in the face of apathy and violence, borne by a world in a constant state of war.


Content Warning: A Chronicle of Ashes depicts scenes of violence and war.

 

Whedon's Row

Chapter V

The Prizefighter

Negotiating with children was simple thievery. Any package, parcel or goods meant for the Archon was worth a whole lot more than the bit and coppers that Sofie had paid for it. There was no harm done. Those kids had never dreamt of ever putting eyes on silver. She was doing them a service. Especially the girl who’d soured Prey’s mood. She was clever, certainly, but wouldn’t walk away unpunished. Better she gets a few good nights in a proper bed before Prey caught up with her and worked her to the bone.


It was charity, really. Those selfsame streets were her home, too. If it weren’t for Prey, Sofie would have no teeth and plenty of misshapen bones. Growing up, she fought older boys to entertain soldiers in exchange for hot meals and a few chips whenever they felt generous.


At first, she’d get left in a pool of her own blood, lucky if she’d even been able to wash it off her clothes before she’d pick a new fight. After a time, the hits stopped hurting, and she’d learned to dodge and weave. Once she’d figured out how to control a scrap, Sofie would masquerade as a desperate waif who didn’t know how to fight, act wobbly on her feet after a blow she’d lean into, or let her hands hang low to trick the boys into a false confidence. They’d always fall for it and wouldn’t learn until she sharpened her knuckles on their jaws. Soon after she’d gained a touch of notoriety and would-be prizefighters lined up for a chance to take her down. That was how Prey found her.


Those days were nostalgic now; she only got into scuffles when a job didn’t go as planned. Despite running a simple courier job, the memory had her itching to feel someone’s bones crack under her fist.


Sofie made her way towards Prey’s harbourside flat in the Raucous, around the back of a warehouse a few blocks from The House. The sun slipped behind the taller buildings, casting a shade over the canal as she crossed onto the old, cobbled bridge. A uniformed soldier--not a Warden--stood smoking with elbows resting on the capstones. Her straw-coloured hair whipped loose in the wind as she gave Sofie a side-eye, sending a rush of gooseflesh down her arms.


“Eh,” the uniform said, “what’ve you got there?”


“Just some honeycakes I had made special for me nan, sir.” Sofie tucked it a little closer, gave a curt bow, and raised her eyebrows as if to tell the uniform to piss off. But she didn’t. Instead, flicked her cigarette into the canal and turned towards Sofie. “I swear, it’s just pastries. She’s a vet, too. You’re navy, yeah? Not asking for trouble, just wanted to bring her a treat, is all.”


“Got papers?” The officer flashed her pistol.


“For some cakes?” Sofie backpedalled towards the far parapet. “Sir.”

“I am Captain Katrine Varg. You will address me as Captain Varg when I speak to you, understood?”

Sofie nodded, “Aye, Cap’n. Varg. Sir.”


“We both know there’re no cakes, don’t we? I’m quite familiar with that particular parcel, though it looks a sight in your hands. See, I’ve stared at that paper, counted the tiny little hairs on the wrapping twine in my cabin for near a fortnight, wondering what could possibly be so important as to have it hand couriered to the Archon of Caoiva by an Edellian captain.”


Sofie wasn’t ready to end the ruse just yet. The captain grew heated. If she had to roll up her sleeves, an angry opponent would only help.


Passersby had begun to avoid the bridge, clearly recognizing a brewing altercation involving a uniform. Captain Varg was within sniffing distance now, her tobacco breath stronger than the stench wafting up from the canal. It nearly caused Sofie to gag. Smoking was a vice if there ever was one. It gummed up breathing and made folk smell like a tomcat’s arse. “That is, until a little rat pilfered it from under my nose. Imagine my surprise when I spy a much bigger rat waltzing along with that very same package, playing the part of a common courier.”


“I swear, miss—sir—captain. Sir.” Sofie set the parcel at her feet and slid it behind her with her heel. It was a fun game, but she was growing bored with the pretense. “I can’t afford another batch. Besides, the baker won’t be open ‘til after Reevesday.”


Varg’s nose brushed against Sofie’s. “I’m plum out of patience today, rat. But I’ll ask nicely. Once. Hand over the parcel.”


“Was that meant to be nice?” Sofie chuckled and pinched Varg’s cheek. “Did they teach you that in the camps?”


A switch flipped in Varg’s eyes. A uniformed forearm brushed at Sofie’s brow. She didn’t flinch; Varg was bluffing. A flex of power, nothing more. These officer types believe the world ought to lick their boots and thank them for the opportunity. Taking stock of her opponent, Sofie noted Varg wore the sea green shawl and brass chains of a formal Edellian uniform and was nowhere near fit enough for a proper brawl.


“Since you’ve gotten yourself all worked up, let’s have a little wager, you and I.” Sofie blew a loose tuft of Varg’s hair out of her face. “Fight me for it.”


“What game are you playing?”


Sofie pushed the captain back a few paces. “You want these cakes so bad, well, I won’t be handing them over gingerly. First to submit concedes the cakes.”


The tiniest hint of a smirk crossed Varg’s face before she slipped out of her boots and jacket. She fastened up her hair, stepped back a few paces and shrugged. “If that’s how it needs to go.”


Sofie had fought many of Varg’s type before. She thought she had the upper hand due to her service, had probably even seen battle, killed men. But always behind the safety of a barrel. Varg was Navy, too. Those bastards were lucky to catch the glint of the sun in their enemy’s eyes. How many times had she taken a hit? Sofie had stared into the eyes of every man she killed, and led them to the underworld with her bare hands. She had little love for soldiers, even less for cowards. At least Varg was no coward. Stupid, but not a coward. Perhaps in another time, they might have been friends.


Sofie unfurled the bandana she wore under her hat and tied it around her right wrist. There was a chance Varg would reach for her sidearm, which would disappoint Sofie, but it wouldn’t have been the first time.


The captain gestured for Sofie to make the first move. A giddiness rushed up Sofie’s spine.


The two circled the roadway, testing each other, neither throwing more than the odd jab or feint, never committing to any real offense. Sofie followed up a feint with a lightning-fast cross. Her knuckle grazed Varg’s chin. Sofie swatted away a response jab. She smirked, locking her wrist to use the captain’s momentum against her, only to be caught by a knee to the gut. Sofie cycled back to create distance and a moment to catch a breath. Varg kept on her, clipping her with a jab straight to the bridge of her nose, followed by a hook that twisted her jawbone. A few more errant shots rocketed around Sofie’s peripherals. She regained composure and easily dodged them, responding with a flurry of jabs. As her fist found purchase on Varg’s teeth, she lunged in with a shallow kick of her own, a receipt straight to the abdomen. In the tussle, Sofie had maintained a grip on Varg’s wrist, and she pulled the captain forward mid-kick, tossing her to the ground.


The taste of copper trickled into Sofie’s mouth as she drove her heel straight into Varg’s ear. “Do you pray, Captain?”


Varg glared back, never breaking eye contact. “No,” she said through her teeth, dribbling blood down her chin.


“I’ve tried a few times.” Sofie stomped at Varg’s back, but she rolled free and popped up into a protective stance. “Stared right into the Sun a few times too. You know, like all the preachers say. ‘Become blind so They might see through you,’ or summat. Never worked for me.” She squared up and locked her feet, anchoring herself.


An elbow clipped Sofie’s cheekbone. She grabbed the captain’s arm, pulled her in close, and replied with a thunderous hook. Something crunched under her fist. “Funny thing about prayer,” she said, “you’re always asking, begging. One day, it’s for forgiveness, the next, advice, or bloody miracles.” A knee struck her side, but she didn’t pay it any mind as she locked Varg’s arm in a hold to keep her from having full range of motion while using her aggression as a pendulum for a windfall of blows that left her face stained with welts and blood. Sofie slammed Varg into the far side of the bridge. “Forgiveness for what? I always wondered. Who am I taking advice from? They never answer, the gods. They can’t be riding that little fiery ball in the sky, can they? Ants aren’t that interesting to me. Why should the gods be our patrons?”


Sofie brushed off a few weak shots, thrust Varg’s arms to the side and landed a rolling elbow into the captain’s nose. She wobbled and lost her footing and crashed hard onto the cobblestones. “You wear that little sunburst on your lapel. That’s not standard issue, far as I can tell.” Her thrusting heel crumpled whatever tissue still held together the captain’s nose. A sticky stream rained from her nose, down her uniform, staining the suncrest and pooling in her lap as Sofie held her up by the hair. “Does it protect you? Do bullets bend around you? Will some big scary man in the sky swoop down and strike me with his holy flames if I keep hitting you?


“Do you feel you’re chosen somehow?” Sofie flashed a crimson smile.


All fight drained from Varg. Her arms fell limp, face expressionless. Perhaps she was a little better than Sofie had initially guessed, but if there was one thing about serviceman, it’s that they thought she fought for sport. They expected to get a long brawl with sparring rules to keep them safe. Maybe a friendly handshake in the end.


“Pox on you,” Varg said in a wheezing whisper. She flicked her wrist and something metallic slipped out from her belt.


Click.


The shot launched Sofie off her feet. Her skull bounced off the roadway. Icy tendrils of pain rushed up through her left arm, straight down to her fingertips. Sofie scuttled forward and plunged her heel into Varg’s face. She unleashed a flurry of machine gun kicks to an orchestra of wet thunks until the captain stopped moving.


Sofie couldn’t wiggle her fingers or bend her elbow. It prickled as though she’d been lounging in a frozen spring. It was dead weight, like someone had stitched a log onto her shoulder girdle. She pulled herself to her feet and tucked the package into her right elbow.


“It’s always the same with you lot. Can’t bloody fight for yourselves!” Sofie spat blood at her feet, then crossed the rest of the bridge, leaving Varg a crumpled mess. Onlookers pointed and gossiped as she pushed past and disappeared into an alley.


Sofie made a mental note to charge Prey extra for the job. She hadn’t mentioned getting shot by the insecure navy captain she’d picked as a mark. The street folk she ambled by cast her suspicious looks. One elderly Warden asked if she’d needed help, but she muttered something incomprehensible and waved him off as she left a wending trail of blood.


Climbing the four flights to Prey’s flat was pain-filled and uncomfortable. Sofie guessed she’d broken a toe on Varg’s face. Each step was a burning shot up through her leg. All fire and ice, half searing, half numb as she stumbled through the door. Rumtooth caught her, then guided her into Prey’s office. It was a twin to her office back at the House. This one, too, had hundreds of scented candles burning at all hours, bathing the room in a spiced scent. Pleasant, yet threatening. Shelves upon shelves of them framed the room, and with the curtains drawn, the only light came from their dancing flames. Sofie slumped into a chair opposite Prey and set the package down. “That’ll be all, thank you,” Prey said to Rumtooth, who then vanished into the foyer.


“You look well.” A sly smirk creased the corner of Prey’s mouth. She dragged a chair next to Sofie, then rummaged through drawers.


“I’ve come to haggle—” Sofie hacked and coughed, regretting opening her mouth for a joke.


Prey tucked a piece of thread into her palm, then slammed the drawer and opened another. “I haven’t seen you this bad since that time with the drunk Picarian on the ferry to Luxford.”


“It was your bloody captain. Too stupid to realize you’d set her up, she wouldn’t let me by without defending what honor she’d had left. Thought I could get her down before…”


“She pulled a pistol on you?” Sofie groaned in response as Prey found what she was searching for and slammed the drawer. She pulled a bottle of Estrellan white brandy from the bar, cracked the cork, and handed it to Sofie.


The brandy tasted sharp yet smooth and filled her chest with a comforting warmth. Sofie took a second swig and grimaced, hissing. “They always do.”


Prey tucked the chair in close and tied a length of thread onto a hook needle. “Let’s get that off,” she said, and helped Sofie pull her shirt around her dead arm and over her head. The cool gentleness of her touch eased Sofie’s antipodal nerves. What alarmed her, though, was where the sensation stopped, just above her left shoulder blade. Now that the rush had faded, she wasn’t sure it would ever return. Prey’s silvery scars glittered in the candlelight. “Looks clean through, which is for the best.” She poured some of the brandy on the wound and handed it back to Sofie.


“Can’t feel it. The whole thing’s a lump.” Sofie couldn’t look at Prey, like the admission made her weak, less whole. Less useful.


Prey poked around Sofie’s arm with the tip of the needle. Her shoulder, then forearm. Fingers. Sofie shook her head at each test, until Prey went back to her neck, and she nodded. “At least the stitching will be quick work.”


“Good, ‘cause I can’t bloody stand needles.”


The needle weaving through her skin reminded her of screaming while underwater; there should be sound, the force of it was there, but none of it hit the ear correctly. After Prey closed the wound, she dabbed a cloth in brandy, wiped it down, then dressed it and the other minor wounds she suffered in the fight.


“Tomorrow’s the day, then?” Sofie asked.


Prey swung back around into the large oak chair across the desk from Sofie. She lifted the package and examined it as though it were a precious gemstone or a long-forgotten artifact. The kind that would feature in adventure ballads or shabby plays put on by military troupers.


Tears welled up in Prey’s eyes that vanished in a single blink as her gaze turned steely and fierce. “I’d have you there at my side if I could.”


Sofie leaned back, cradling her dead arm. “I know.”


“It’s better if no one associates us.”


“I know.”


With a single sharp tug, the twine binding fell loose. The paper was already torn so Prey pulled it the rest of the way and let the paper drop. All that remained was a small chestnut box with copper hinges and latch, luxuriously chamfered edges, and a polished finish.


“When it’s all done, I’ll come back and we’ll—”


“I know.” Sofie said, her voice a dreamy whisper.


Prey opened the box and let out a long, triumphant sigh.

 

Written by Matthew Rigg


Chapters of this episode of 'A Chronicle of Ashes' will update on an irregular schedule. Keep an eye out on the site or on Discord for announcements of future chapters!


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